There are encounters that change your mind and it is not Hélène Darroze who will be able to say the opposite. The one who was elected “Best female chef in the world” in 2015 certainly did not plan to become so attached to the city in which she welcomes us today. Because, between London and her, things were not at all over. Although she now considers the English capital her “home”, her first experiences, ranging from school trips to occasional missions on the British gastronomic scene, had not particularly appealed to her.
It was only in 2008, when the iconic palace “The Connaught” contacted her to take over her restaurant, that the magic happened. “It was in the middle of November so you can easily imagine that the city was all gray, covered in a kind of fog… but in reality, it was quite the opposite. It was a very hot sun and I remember saying to myself, wow, there is something happening here,” she confided.
She was then amazed by the landscape but also by the dynamism and diversity of the London gastronomic scene which she found more advanced at that time than her Parisian counterpart. “There are a lot of concept restaurants here. They developed in London then moved abroad. Italian, Asian, Indian cuisines… There were already institutions which served a level of gastronomy which had no reason to be ashamed of what was happening in France,” she explains. The English capital being, by nature, very cosmopolitan, the influences of the various communities positively inspire and accelerate the conception and evolution of a very varied cuisine. And added, “when I arrived here, 15 years ago, I had the impression that London was the center of the world as the different countries were represented there: the Eastern countries, the Mediterranean countries, the ‘Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, North and South… everyone came to London!’. A “center of the world” in which she no longer hesitated for a single second to seek (and find) her place.
“My Mayfair Lady”
Contacted by The Connaught to bring “Darroze’s touch” to her prestigious table, the chef who until then called herself “the woman of only one restaurant” changed her mind and set up her suitcases in the Mayfair district, qualified of “Petite France”, a stone’s throw from Mount Street where the establishment is located. The start of a seven-year residency, where she and her two daughters immediately felt at home. “Just a few hours ago, my daughters asked me if we couldn’t consider coming back to live here,” confides Hélène Darroze, smiling. From the church where she often goes to worship, to the “Audley” pub on Mount Street, through the quiet but warm park near the school they attended… all these places so dear to her heart seem remain intact in the memories, so much so that she says she returns there each time she comes. “This neighborhood has almost become my childhood village with some rituals such as walks and meetings. It was my life. I kept my habits, my relationships there. There was even a time when I came to get my energy here, I came to get my fuel in London,” she continues.
“Hélène Darroze at the Connaught”, a family story
Essentially run by French chefs since the beginning of the 20th century – with the exception of Angela Hartnett’s residence, between 2002 and 2008 – the restaurant at The Connaught hotel assumes its very French bias in order to offer a gastronomic offer up to its requirements. It was therefore quite natural that they approached Hélène Darroze in order to bring a wave of novelty while maintaining a “French” tradition that would satisfy an international clientele. “There was a place to be had in London at that time because the great chefs already established such as Pierre Koffmann or the Roux family were almost considered British. There was something to do in terms of French cuisine, it was a real motivation for me” says the chef. Then to specify her gratitude to the team of the establishment who welcomed her “like a queen”, helping her to find a home, extending a hand to make her feel good in this new period of life which promised her, she would know later, unforgettable moments. Hélène Darroze makes it clear, however, that she has never neglected the importance of a very large investment to meet this new challenge. After four to six years of refining her menu, initially relying on what she already offered in Paris, she emancipated herself from her original regional and family cuisine to design gastronomic proposals flirting with her own vision of this that one would expect from a Parisian palace. A successful bet since she won her third star in the Michelin guide in 2021. A moment full of emotion that she describes as “the strongest thing that has happened to her in her professional life”. A Holy Grail with a tender glow, for those who were lulled as a child by a few tales… “For me, who have always evolved in the world of gastronomy with my family, I remember listening to my father talk about these 3-star chefs and I “I had an eyeful,” she remembers. From now on, Hélène Darroze and her team have found their guiding principle but if there is one rule in the Darroze family it is humility. Tell yourself that you can never win and always question yourself. “We are constantly reworking the dishes, the service, the customer experience, the art of the table… The day we got the third star, we were all very happy and I said thank you and congratulations because it is teamwork. On the other hand, I clarified “it’s not over, we’re going to get the fourth star. Even if it doesn’t exist, let’s go! “. Hélène Darroze at the Connaught is a business that has been going on for 15 years this year, an anniversary that she wanted to celebrate in her own image this Sunday, September 10, 2023.
15 candles, 7 dishes, a big family
“When it came to finding the best way to celebrate this anniversary, we discussed with Mirko (the general manager of the restaurant, editor’s note) and Marco (the executive chef of Hélène at the Connaught, editor’s note) and the idea naturally imposed itself on us: we had to bring back all these chefs who have created a piece of their own history in this kitchen! » says Hélène Darroze. They all accepted, without exception, and traveled from Hong Kong, Paris and elsewhere, to meet up like a big family for this September weekend. “I learned some time ago that, behind my back, they all called me Mom,” she confides with a laugh full of emotion. And for the occasion, the conductor that she usually is, decided to reverse the roles and discover, in the same way as the restaurant’s customers, this menu made up of seven dishes. As our interview takes place, she still has no idea what will be served to her on the plate. But while the next day we attend the traditional pre-service speech as well as the preparations in the kitchen where “La Table du chef” is also located, we observe a note of pride in his eyes, as well as immense pleasure to see the faces that helped him shape the reputation of the place all these years. A joyful atmosphere then emerges in the basement where everyone contributes their ideas and experience in order to compose a star-studded menu that will delight the 65 or so guests planned for that day. One more happy memory for Hélène Darroze and her team. And the adventure will not stop there since the French chef announces having extended her residence for an additional ten years in the establishment: “When a marriage is beautiful, we do everything to make it last! »
Hélène Darroze, soon in Italy?
After this first fruitful experience abroad, we cannot help but wonder what the chef’s next international challenge will be. On this point, Hélène Darroze is open to nothing. Although she recently became executive chef at the Royal Mansour, succeeding her colleague Yannick Alléno, she remains open to new projects, while retaining the touch that made her famous. “We know how we cook, we know what our values are in this way of giving happiness to people. Afterwards, there are certain dreams…” she explains. She then remembers a restaurant project in New York which remained in her mind for a long time and also recalls the very recent opening in Paris of her gourmet burger restaurant, Jòia Bun, “ultimately, it is perhaps my Parisian version of the American dream,” she jokes. The culinary culture is as vast as our guest’s natural curiosity and it is with a very serious air that she adds: “If there was another country I would like to explore, it would be Italy. I would really like to give my vision of Italian cuisine in a city like Florence for example…”. Trained by chef Ducasse and more particularly by the Italian chef Mario Muratore in Monaco who had a huge impact on her career, she says she had an incredible experience, in contact with Italian “mamas”. But if this idea easily makes our mouths water, one thing is certain, it is that with Hélène Darroze, the best is certainly on the plate, but above all always to come!